Martha’s Vineyard — the comic book


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A truish look at life on the Vineyard back in the day.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a wave of 20somethings were drawn to Martha’s Vineyard. Some were college dropouts or recent graduates, some were just looking for a safe place to avoid the real world, where a senseless war had pitted one generation against another. Some were what you’d call hippies, others not so easily categorized.

Mark Hurwitt came to the Island then from Camden, N.J., when he was in his early 20s, and stayed for around 20 years, long enough to see how the Island changed in the ’80s and ’90s, and through the perspective of time realize what a unique place he had moved to in those early years.

Hurwitt is an illustrator, and worked at the Vineyard Gazette in the ’80s as the staff artist. Like so many others of his generation, he was greatly influenced by “American Splendor,” Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic series started in the ’70s, which included the work of the legendary Robert Crumb, among others.

“I really wanted to capture what it was like back in the ’70s on the Island,” said Hurwitt in a recent conversation, “that early time when there was that whole hippy, back-to-the-land movement, before the yuppies, and I looked around to see if I could find any genre of comics that had a real sense of place, and I couldn’t find any that were doing that.”

Hurwitt’s “aha!” moment may have come in 1988, when his friend Donald Nitchie showed him a story he had written about spending a winter by himself in Chilmark, back in those early days. It was called “Winter Sports,” and Hurwitt thought, This is just the kind of story he could build a whole comic book around.

“Donald wrote and gave me ‘Winter Sports,’ and as I was reading it, I got visual images,” Hurwitt said. “It may have been the inspiration for the comic book … when I was reading stuff Donald wrote, I thought, This could be something.”

“Winter Sports” was about 40 percent autobiographical,” said Nitchie. “My grandparents had a place out on Quitsa Pond, and I used to spend time out there in middle school and high school. Then in the fall of ’76, I came down to try to spend the year.”

It was pretty desolate. In the story he describes how he ate abandoned vegetables from summer people’s gardens; his evenings, which he spent listening to call-in radio shows from New Bedford, were made a little more stimulating when his friend Steve left him with a large bag of marijuana. His big adventure came when he hitchhiked to the Ritz in Oak Bluffs, drank a lot of beer (Nitchie figures he was about 19 at the time), then spent the rest of the night walking home. Along the way he found a stack of National Enquirers behind the Chilmark Store, and pilfered some goodies from the fridge at the Chilmark School. Big night out. In January Nitchie moved down-Island, and so ends the story. But it inspired Martha’s Vineyard Comics and Stories, published in 1989.

In 1989 Hurwitt reached out to Island illustrators and writers, whom he would refer to in the credits as the “Martha’s Vineyard Comics Collective.” In all, there would be 13 writers and/or artists contributing 13 stories. In addition to Hurwitt and Nitchie, there were Daisy Kimberly, Anne Ganz, Stephanie Hughes, Maynard Silva, Ben Tripp, Will Pfluger, Paul Karasik, Bob Lee, Paul Gordon, Gus D’Angelo, and Fran Copeland.

Many of the stories, like “Winter Sports,” are vignettes of everyday life as this new generation of Islanders came of age in a place where the rules were a little fuzzy, and pot often elevated the mundane to the profound.

In “Summer of ’74,” Daisy Kimberly recalls her first summer on the Island. She, her husband Bob, and their 4-year-old daughter Amanda were living in a teepee out on Tiah’s Cove in West Tisbury. Lots of mellow kindred spirits, a beautiful and still largely undeveloped Island, languid days under the summer sun, life was good — until it wasn’t. Until it started raining and raining and raining, and the teepee started leaking, and their world became suddenly soggy. As Daisy recalled, “At one point, Amanda had to pee, which meant going outside in the rain, so I said, ‘Just take your dry clothes off and go outside,’ and she looked at me and said, ‘I never thought it would come to this.’”

Anne Ganz describes the trials and tribulations of finding and navigating a laundromat in “The Impossible Task.” She writes, “In the ’60s it was the laundromat that taught me the SMELL of pot — they weren’t smoking it there; just the hot water brought the smell OUT in their wash.”

In “I never thought I’d grow up to be a Vineyard Character,” Will Pfluger explores a truism of Island life: the bar for eccentricity is a bit higher here than on the mainland. Pfluger came to the Island as a boy, and was introduced to the demimonde of up-Island society. “Everything was going along with my packaged view of childhood, until one day I walked down the beach and saw two naked people,” he wrote. “I was this little kid, and a lot of people were beatniks,” Will said in a phone interview. “They’d sit on the beach with no clothes, and one woman ate sand fleas. I came from western Mass.; it was a total dichotomy.”

Pfluger’s story tells of his journey through adolescence and into his 20s, where he struggles to find a “normal” identity even though, perhaps as a result of his early exposure to Vineyard bohemians, his center of gravity seems to be out on the fringe. He abandoned his plans for being an architect, moved to the Vineyard, and became a musician. An eye problem forced him to wear a patch, and he took to wearing two hats — sometimes three — at the same time. “The character part in the story was kind of tongue-in-cheek,” said Pfluger; “I don’t really think I was a Vineyard character.”

“But what about wearing two hats?” I asked. “Oh, yeah, that was true,” he said.

Not all of the stories in Martha’s Vineyard Comics are snapshots of the ’70s. “They’re all about the Vineyard,” said Hurwitt, “but I tried to get a variety — I didn’t want it to be just one note.” In fact, there are several stories of a historical nature.

“The Adventures of Bartholomew Gosnold 1571–1607,” by Stephanie Hughes, is, according to the preface of the story, “based on the facts of Gosnold’s life as revealed by Marshall Shepherd and Warner F. Gookin, with added details and romantic flourishes based on the social history of the times.”

“The Mysterious Mural,” written by Bob Lee and illustrated by Hurwitt, combines actual early Island history with recent history. It tells of a mysterious fresco — an abstract pictograph — drawn over a fireplace in one of the oldest houses on the Vineyard, the Dunham Brainard house on Edgartown Harbor. The mystery involves not only who painted the mural and what it meant, but what became of it.

In 1981 the house was sold to car baron Ernie Boch Sr., who built the current Boch mansion over and around the old Brainard place, and then dismantled it. Was the mural lost in the rubble? Was it saved? Who knows?

Another story with a historical — or perhaps mythological — bent is “Moshup Awoke,” by Paul Karasik. The intro reads, “He took a short nap for a few centuries, and then one day …” Karasik then graphically depicts his take on the legend of Moshup, the Native American giant who settled on Martha’s Vineyard.

Martha’s Vineyard Comics also offers various other glimpses of Vineyard life and culture, including “Pit in the Graveyard,” the story of an ill-fated outhouse-tipping expedition by the late blues guitarist and sign painter Maynard Silva, and “Bunnies,” by Ben Tripp, a prophetic musing on the Island’s struggle with development. Tripp, at the age of 22, would become the youngest show designer ever recruited to work at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Hurwitt would move to Brooklyn in 1990, after Martha’s Vineyard Comics was published, and went on to work with Art Spiegelman on Maus, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. He looks back on Martha’s Vineyard Comics as a labor of love, and a lot of labor at that.

“We coined the phrase ‘Martha’s Vineyard Comics Collective,’” said Hurwitt, “but basically it was one man’s product. I was publisher, editor, and distributor. I worked my ass off. That summer in ’89, I think I went to the beach one day. The trunk of my car was always filled with comic books; I distributed to about 30 places — Bunch of Grapes was the best. We also had it in the Edgartown bookstore [Bickerton and Ripley] — it was anywhere there was a magazine rack — it became very popular. It was also off-Island in a magazine shop in Woods Hole, in St. Mark’s Comics in New York City, and Newbury Comics in Boston. I think the only place that wouldn’t carry it was the Steamship Authority; we wanted them to sell them on the boat.

“When the word got out that we were doing a comic about the Vineyard, people thought it was going to be full of stuff about tourists and celebrities — they were surprised. All told, we sold 3,000 copies. It was a success, and I’d have done it again if I’d stayed on-Island.”

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